MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today Chicago officially began its journey of overhauling its police department under the watch of a federal judge and an independent monitor. The massive plan comes after years of complaints about police brutality from residents of mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. For many, the video of a police officer fatally shooting a black teenager in 2014 was the last straw. Now Chicago joins more than a dozen other cities where consent decrees are forcing police departments to change. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It was just two years ago that the Department of Justice issued a blistering report calling the Chicago Police Department's use of force excessive and racially discriminatory. Soon afterwards, Chicago police issued a new use of force policy, emphasizing the sanctity of life and started holding training sessions.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Drop that knife.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, drop it right now, or you're going to get shot.
CORLEY: At the police training academy, officers looked at videos of real use of force encounters and talked about what could have gone better. Now under a consent decree, there are many more changes in store. For example, the department must create a monthly report about use of force incidents. It bans police from using Tasers on people who are simply running away. The agreement also expands mental health services for police, including an initiative for suicide prevention, a big concern recently. Eddie Johnson is Chicago's police superintendent.
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EDDIE JOHNSON: We've known about this consent decree for the last two years, so we're prepared mentally to have to deal with it. As a matter of fact, the consent decree will make us better. We say bring it on, and let's get down to business.
CORLEY: There are 14 other law enforcement agencies in the country getting down to business. The police department in Ferguson, Mo., is one of them. A fatal police shooting there sparked nationwide protest and helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement. Activist Felicia Pulliam says progress under the consent decree is mixed.
FELICIA PULLIAM: You know, I'm going to have to say that I've seen some incidents of improvement. There was a lot of resistance to a new practice of policing, a new way of policing the community, from some police officers.
CORLEY: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says it's a different story there. After 6 1/2 years of operating under a consent decree, a federal judge said in January Seattle's police department was in compliance.
JENNY DURKAN: We still have a disproportionate amount of force being used against people of color that we think we need to look at more carefully, but there has been a sea in cultural change.
RICHARD O'NEILL: Well, it was very frustrating from the beginning.
CORLEY: And Richard O'Neill with Seattle's police union is still critical.
O'NEILL: The incentives to get out and be a proactive officer I think has been damaged. And something the city cannot deny anymore is that we have had a real hit in recruiting - retaining officers.
CORLEY: That's a problem nationwide even in departments without decrees. Chicago officials and community activists say they've studied the consent decrees in other cities. Sheila Bedi is an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. She represented activist and community groups in a successful fight to allow them to have a direct say in overseeing the court-ordered reforms. She says that's uniquely different from other consent decrees.
SHEILA BEDI: There are very specific ways that police in Chicago abuse their power, and it was critical that this consent decree could not just be imported from Seattle, for example, that they really address the particular harm that Chicago communities face.
CORLEY: The federal judge overseeing Chicago's police reform plan says it's an important step in the city's ongoing effort to repair the damaged relationship between police and residents. He says it's no magic wand, but it is a beginning. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.